Think Piece

Arthur Sidgwick’s Diaries: Notes from a Work in Progress

by Emily Rutherford

A page from Arthur Sidgwick's diaries
A page from Arthur Sidgwick’s diaries, Bodleian MSS Eng. misc. e. 655-9, p. II.172 (Emily Rutherford)

This image (click for full size) is a page from the diary of a man called Arthur Sidgwick, who lived from 1840 to 1920 and who taught ancient Greek first at an elite private secondary school and then at Oxford. When he was an undergraduate, Sidgwick began to keep a written record of different aspects of his daily life. It ranges back in time to record the births of people like his wife and his closest university friends, and stays up-to-date with work appointments, travel plans, and more intimate details. Sidgwick filled this diary in retrospectively, possibly by copying information from an appointment book that doesn’t survive. But it’s very unlike the texts most historians and literary critics mean when they discuss the “Victorian diary”: it’s not written in complete sentences; what forms of introspection and emotional revelation there are here need to be read quite literally between the lines of the tabular format, which bears a greater resemblance to an accounting ledger than to a piece of life-writing. There’s a literature on accounting ledgers, particularly in the eighteenth century, but is it the right source for appropriate models for how to read this later, more qualitative, record? Perhaps not any more than the literature on Victorian diaries, which tends to characterize them as nakedly confessional documents, is.

As you might guess from this page, a lot of code-cracking has gone into my efforts to read this diary. Reading its five volumes was a slow process of figuring out the logic behind the ordering of the page: the list of travel destinations and days spent at each at the top, the column at right filled with initials that probably signifies correspondence with specific individuals, the column further to the right that, due to glosses of symbols such as “β” (bicycling) and “lt” (lawn tennis) that Sidgwick offers elsewhere, probably keeps track of his physical fitness. Some of the text is in Greek, a language of which I have limited knowledge—though likely more than the other women, such as Sidgwick’s wife and sister, who would have had access to this document as Sidgwick composed it. This is important, because translating the Greek (another act of decoding) sometimes reveals more intense emotions than Sidgwick is willing to express in English, and sometimes—veiled in metaphor or euphemism, requiring further decoding—references to sex. On this page Sidgwick marries his wife, Charlotte (just above the horizontal line that firmly divides his single from his partnered existence), and just below the line a Greek phrase offers one of a small handful of descriptive records of a wedding night in all of nineteenth-century English sources: “lovingly with her lips she made holy my shame.” Greek also offers the key to the code in the column between the date and the longer entry. On an earlier page, Sidgwick glosses the “|” symbol with a Greek word meaning “kisses,” and an “—” with two Greek euphemisms for sexual intercourse. The “μ,” on the other hand, appears roughly every 5 – 7 days out of every 25 – 30, and not in the months preceding the births of the Sidgwicks’ children. I’m sure you can work that one out for yourselves—but I have to confess I actually said “eureka” out loud in the archive when it dawned on me.

There are more codes I don’t have space to discuss here, not all of which I’ve cracked yet. I also don’t want to tell you too much about the conclusions I’ve drawn from my attempts to synthesize this enormous document, because they’re very much a work in progress. But the challenges this source raises have lessons for dealing with Victorian ego-documents more generally. I’ve shown you one page out of thousands, featuring a particularly significant event in the lives of Arthur and Charlotte Sidgwick. This page and others surrounding it are also important in historiographical terms, because they challenge the contentions of some work on Victorian marriage that the wedding night is typically shrouded in mystery in the archive, and that in the absence of records we have to assume that the sudden intrusion of carnal knowledge into couples’ previously homosocial lives was traumatic for both parties, particularly the wife. This document shows, however, that Charlotte enthusiastically expressed sensual desire, as well as some knowledge of what would happen to her physically on her wedding night (on this page and others, Sidgwick copies in excerpts from Charlotte’s letters to him). And that one wedding-night sentence in Greek, read between the lines, says a lot about carnal knowledge as well.

Still. It’s one page out of thousands. As revelatory as this finding is, it wouldn’t be appropriate to blow it out of proportion. It’s easy to get enchanted by clues and codes and to use them, in Freudian or Foucauldian style, to seek out the sexuality simmering just below the Victorian surface. Seen as a whole, though, these diaries’ story isn’t (only) about sex, whether marital or—as some have insisted—homoerotic. Read faithfully as Sidgwick’s own comprehensive tabulation of the varied aspects of his professional and personal lives, it shows how one man negotiated a multiplicity of affective bonds: with his wife, children, his students, his colleagues, his extended family, his lifelong friends. Sidgwick’s diaries help us to map more comprehensively than historians have before the variety of affective relations people had in this period—when emotions and sex worked differently to how they did today, and defy historians’ efforts to put them into boxes as easily as Sidgwick did his correspondence and his exercise routines.

8 replies on “Arthur Sidgwick’s Diaries: Notes from a Work in Progress”

Thinking about the last post by Maddy, my reflection is: in the early modern period, learned diarists–Martin Crusius, for example, who taught Johannes Kepler Greek, and Isaac Casaubon–are sometimes more explicit, just as the relics of classroom work are richer. Not so much for discussions of sexuality–for those early modernists turn to a different kind of source, the casebooks of medical men/astrologers like Simon Forman and Richard Napier. See The Casebooks Project (, brilliantly directed by Lauren Kassell. But we get dreams, religious experiences and reflections, and much care of the self. One common element is the use of Greek for discretion. Evidently one sustaining element of the classical tradition was the belief that what’s recorded in Greek stays in Greek.

Thanks – I’m interested in this, because we don’t ever think of or teach ancient Greek as something that might be relevant to modern historians’ lives, yet it’s absolutely indispensable for my work. I think it could do some good to think of it, like Latin, as a living language in the 19th century that people who work on 19th-century intellectuals and educators should know something about. This would have the added benefit of establishing that modern historians are as capable as classicists of having something to say about these modern people who were steeped in antiquity.

It doesn’t surprise me at all to hear that early modern diaries are filled with emotional and personal detail. We so often underestimate the ability of people in the past to be as confessional as we are, but surely it’s more a matter of appreciating different registers, like religious expression, that seem less accessible to us today?

Hey: either this is intellectual history or intellectual history needs to have an identity crisis. Well, maybe it does! As to confessional writing in the past: Logan Pearsall Smith, in his wonderful memoir Unforgotten Years, describes what it felt like to look at the cracks between the floorboards in his family house, as a child, and smell the brimstone and see the smoke that rose between them. Start from beliefs and experiences like that–as most early moderns did–and it’s amazing how skillful you can become at identifying and acknowledging all the sources of your well-earned guilt.

My best effort (hopefully someone can correct any errors):

from home

to home

ὦ στέρνα δὸς στέρνοισι συμπλέκον δέμας
O breast, give to breasts a combined frame.

γυμνοῦ κόρη τὸ σῶμα· σὀς πάρειμ’ ἀνήρ (kίους wisc)
Strip your body, girl, your man is present. (Unk. I am sure I am mistranscribing what is inside the parenthesis.)

ὦ θάλπος ἡ οὐ στηθέων τε συμβολή.
O pain of the breasts not joined.

[quote]χείλει φιλοῦς ἥγιζεν αἰσχύνην ἐμήν[/quote]
Two lips hallowed my shame.

[quote]δυω· τίς ἔστ’ ἄριθμος ἡδίων σέθεν;[/quote]
Two, what number is more pleasant to thou?

[quote]ἥδιστος ὕπνος σωμάτων ἐζευγμένων[/quote]
Sweet sleep of bodies yoked together.

Nice, Tolmides – clearly there should be a “translate Arthur Sidgwick’s diaries” crowdsourcing project! I’ve never had the time to get through all of it myself, as there’s lots more where this came from. BTW, that parenthesis is in English – it says “pious wish”.

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